Defcon Review
7.8our score

Defcon is a real-time strategy game developed by Indie studio Introversion Software. They call it the world’s first Genocide ‘em up, and they aren’t far off the mark there. In Defcon nobody wins. It’s global thermonuclear war – and one thing is guaranteed: millions of people are going to die. But maybe – just maybe – you can lose the least.

Gameplay

Defcon follows an incredibly simple concept. The game is played by anywhere from 2 – 6 players in any combination of human players and AI. The AI is extremely adequate, but doesn’t provide quite the same sense of psychological warfare and tense atmosphere that playing against humans will bring. Defcon is played in real-time with several speed-settings, and the speed is determined by ‘vote’, i.e. each player clicks the speed he or she prefers at that time and the game will run at the lowest selected speed. This works remarkably well, as there are moments where some additional speed is highly desired.

Defcon ReviewPlayers control one of 6 regions; the United States, Europe, South America, Russia, Asia or Africa – each of which contains various cities depending on the settings of the game. All players always have the same population in total, but it might be spread slightly differently over their cities depending on the settings. There are a few different modes and ways to gain score, but the default mode involves causing as much enemy civilian deaths as possible, while keeping your own losses to an absolute minimum. A very simple concept, but provides extremely tense gameplay!

At the start of each game it’s Defcon 5, which means no combat of any kind will take place yet, and a counter is ticking down towards Defcon 4. This phase is best used to deploy all your buildings and units – which comprises Radar Stations, Missile Silos, Airfields and Naval Units. The naval units include submarines, aircraft carriers and battleships, and are best seen as mobile platforms to launch more nukes from. This is quite important as your normal nukes have a rather long flight time and the only way to really break through enemy defense systems is to launch nukes simultaneously from multiple locations.

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At Defcon 3 it is possible for ‘conventional’ military action and at this point fleets & aircraft will start to engage any enemy units they encounter. Once Defcon 1 is reached, players are allowed to launch nuclear missiles and the nerve-wrecking part of the game begins. Your missile silos (like many other units!) have 2 modes; ICBM and Missile Defence. When you start launching nukes, your silo becomes visible to everyone on the map, with a large message that a nuclear launch has been detected and your silo will be unable to defend your territory against incoming enemy missiles. As such, timing and responding to enemy movement is everything in Defcon. Nothing is more tense than spotting that first launch and choosing how you will respond. Will you wait and hope you can shoot many of the enemy missiles down, risking complete loss of your own silos, or will you launch everything you have immediately? But what about those enemy submarines, where the hell are they?

Defcon is as much about psychological warfare and predicting what your enemy is going to do next as it is about any form of ‘skill’ in RTS style games. The use of technology in the game is also an exciting aspect.  While the player is not expected to make sure that the CMMS software is up to date on the missile launching systems or anything like that, it’s still far more technologically focused than board games like ‘Risk’ that share the same basic concept. In fact, no real experience with RTS is required to play or enjoy Defcon, and playing against multiple human opponents is an absolute must if you’re going to judge the game. It’s mediocre at best against the AI – but with any humans involved the game really reaches a whole new level. Trying to explain this game is incredibly difficult, but the trailer does a lovely job at it so have a look:

UI / Controls

Defcon contains a reasonably decent tutorial that explains most of the inner workings of the game fairly well. I still found the controls somewhat fiddly, especially when micro-managing bombers (from carriers) and ensuring they actually drop a nuke somewhere. Changing the ‘mode’ that units are in can sometimes be a little frustrating as well. The UI on the other hand, is excellent and presents information in a clean and clear manner. Considering the fact that this is the sort of game where every second matters, it would have been nice to have a slightly easier time with the actual controls, but they aren’t exactly bad either.

Graphics / Sound

The graphics in Defcon follow the Introversion style and for the most part are very functional. Everything is easy to recognise and due to the style used the game should run on virtually any computer. That said, some of the units aren’t fantastic and as you can see in the trailer nothing about the graphics is really “great” either. They are functional, but that’s really everything said. The style of graphics is purposefully minimalist though, and this has to be taken into account when judging the game.

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In terms of sound – a completely different opinion. There obviously isn’t much required in terms of sound, but the music is fantastically fitting and adds immensely to the immersion of the game. The soundtrack has a feeling of despair and loss, and really suits the game in every way possible. It’s very easy to underestimate the effect a good choice of music has on a game, but whomever made the decision here deserves the praise.

Conclusion

It’s very difficult not to like Defcon. Against human opponents, this game can be as tense as games can possibly be. You really don’t know who will win until most nukes have landed. The game is £5.99 when bought at full price on Steam – but we bought it in a pack for a fiver together with several other games. It was worth every penny just for Defcon alone and we strongly suggest you buy this game and play it against some friends immediately! This really was one of the pleasant surprises of the recent Steam sales!

the author

Managing Editor of ManaPool, Peter lives in York, UK and is a great fan and master of turn-based strategy games. If he isn't playing one of those, you'll probably find him in a role-playing game instead. He's definitely not afraid to provide a straight up opinion on any game and has a strong like for indie developers. We all start small, after all.